Members of the Louisiana Republican Party, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, the Louisiana Family Forum, and the Innocence Project walk into a room. This is not the start of a bad joke, but rather the beginning of a Unanimous Jury Coalition (UJC) meeting. People filter in carrying backpacks and briefcases, some wearing sandals and others full suits. Pre-meeting chatter spans from talk of church to Congress to the candy on the table.
The unexpected group has formed to encourage everyone in Louisiana--regardless of political leaning--to vote YES on Amendment 2 on the November 6 ballot. In today’s America, such unlikely allies uniting across party lines is a rare sight. In fact, a room where formerly incarcerated people are collaborating with former conservative prosecutors is so abnormal as to be worthy of statewide news coverage. Yet it is exactly this type of collaboration that is necessary to make true political change. And it’s happening.
To understand the importance of this motley crew, it’s important to first understand what’s bringing them together: the current existence of non-unanimous juries in Louisiana.
In this state, only 10 out of 12 jurors in all jury cases are required to agree that a person is guilty in order to sentence that person to prison. Louisiana is one of only two states in the nation that do not currently require unanimous juries in criminal cases, and the only state that does not require them in murder cases.
Unanimous juries--which the other 48 states have had for a long time--are meant to ensure that the person on trial is judged by a jury representative of their peers, and that each member of the jury has an equal voice.
This equality on the jury holds the justice system accountable to make sure that all citizens receive a fair trial.
Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law, dating back to the 1898 constitutional convention, works to silence the voice of opposition in jury cases. Rooted in racism, the law continues to disproportionately impact Black people. Non-unanimous juries have led to wrongful convictions, an over extension of government power, and a reproduction of white supremacy.
But the motley UJC crew is here to correct that. The group is a model of bipartisan grassroots organizing that is moving beyond biases in order to change the broken systems that affect Louisiana communities in profound ways. The UJC is made of people of many different races, class statuses, faiths, and political backgrounds. So, too, are Louisiana voters, so many of whom are affected by the reality of non-unanimous juries, and all of whom hold the power to demand the same basic right to a fair trial for Louisiana residents that 48 states in our nation guarantee for their citizens.
Celebrities are also joining hands with the civil rights activists, politicians, and Louisiana citizens of all kinds who are uniting to vote #yeson2 and encourage others to do the same.
“It's time to come together, reject prejudice in all its forms and build a future in which everyone is valued and supported”-- John Legend
“It's time to come together, reject prejudice in all its forms and build a future in which everyone is valued and supported,” says Grammy award winning singer/songwriter John Legend. “The 1898 constitutional convention was about denying voice to the expression of all of Louisiana's citizens. This ballot question in November is about giving Louisiana her voice back.”
Echoing Legend’s sentiments is VOTE’s own Checo Yancy, who is formerly incarcerated and was sentenced by a 10-2 jury. "The unanimous jury matters because of liberty, freedom, and confidence in the justice system," he says. "The only way to make change is to unite as Louisiana voters."
The UJC, Legend, Yancy and many more are working hard to make sure Louisiana voters know that non-unanimous juries are denying them rights that are guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
That way, come November 6, when question 2 on the ballot reads, verbatim:
“CA NO. 2 (ACT 722 - SB 243 - Unanimous Juries for Noncapital Felonies
Do you support an amendment to require a unanimous jury verdict in all noncapital felony cases for offenses that are committed on or after January 1, 2019? (Amends Article 1, Section 17 (A)) ”, Louisianans of all backgrounds will know what to do.
This movement is stronger when all people come together, learn together, and vote together.
Sarah Gordon is VOTE's new Communications Assistant. She recently moved to New Orleans after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis. Contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On September 6, community members gathered for the first Stop Solitary Confinement Campaign meeting at VOTE’s office in New Orleans. At the meeting, individuals who have experienced solitary confinement shared their stories and discussed strategies for eliminating this dehumanizing practice in Louisiana prisons and jails. One of the goals of the campaign is to educate citizens about human rights violations that persist in prisons. “It’s that mystery that allows these abuses to happen,” says Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of VOTE. Listen to this WBOK interview to hear more about solitary confinement from Bruce, Albert Woodfox, a community leader and activist who spent more than 40 years in solitary, and Vanessa Spinazola, a lawyer with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy:
“[Prisons] want to keep people in their individual cells, individual lives, individual struggles…The worst thing that can happen to a prison is all of the folks banded together asking for better conditions, better yet demanding better conditions,” says Bruce Reilly. VOTE is building a coalition of directly impacted people to demand better conditions in prisons and jails, to call out injustice, and to hold those officials who are in charge of our loved ones accountable. Look out for more information in the coming weeks about Stop Solitary Confinement Campaign meetings in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport, as well as a larger event that will be open to the public in November.
The second bi-annual Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM) conference was a huge success. VOTE traveled with a bus full of 50 members from New Orleans to Orlando early Thursday morning. This year’s FICPFM conference was held in Florida, a state where 1.4 million people convicted of non-violent felonies have lost their right to vote. The gathering was centered around a ballot initiative that could restore voting rights to those people if it passes on November 6. Nearly 1,000 people from across the United States gathered to discuss, learn, organize, and mobilize to end mass incarceration.
Friday morning we came together for an opening plenary, “This is What a Movement Looks Like.” Members of the steering committee welcomed attendees and reflected on the progress that the movement has made since the last FICPFM gathering. Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice, turned our attention to the reality that, “there was a time when you’d walk in a room and people would say, ‘where are the formerly incarcerated people (FIP), the directly impacted people?’ and no one would raise their hands.” As we looked around the room and saw 1,000 FIP, family members, and allies, it was evident that FIP are now at the forefront of the movement. Daryl emphasized that our hard work is what got us here.
After the opening plenary, there were breakout sessions on various policy priorities and best practices in affecting change. Session topics included banning the box and restoring employment, education and housing rights, law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability, and bail reform. A session discussing re-enfranchisement and civic engagement featured our Deputy Director, Bruce Reilly as the moderator. We then gathered for a lunchtime plenary, “Let’s Get in Formation: Women, Leadership and FICPFM.” After listening to panelists discuss the unique issues of mass incarceration for women, smaller caucuses allowed attendees to have more intimate discussions.
The final session of the day, “Wounded Healers: Naming, Understanding and Resolving Our Trauma” was a panel discussion about the pain those directly impacted by the criminal justice system go through, on various levels. We know this trauma exists, but it is rarely recognized or discussed on a large scale, which made the panel even more powerful. Susan Burton, Founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project explained how this country “incarcerates trauma...women’s response to trauma,” and it throws people away, deeming them disposable. “There are no throw away people,” said Susan. “I was thrown away...the pain we feel, our children feel it too. We need to break this intergenerational cycle of trauma and bring peace back to our communities,” Susan continued. Listening to these panelists, we heard the traumatic effects of incarceration for everyone involved. These effects are prevalent among FIP and are too often overlooked by the mainstream public.
On Saturday, we gathered for the final plenary, “Where are we Headed?” We heard from our Executive Director, Norris Henderson, about the importance of collective action in this movement. We used this moment to talk about the future of FICPFM and our role in ending mass incarceration. Throughout the weekend, the FICPFM steering committee asked a series of polling questions to attendees in order to gauge what people believed are the most pressing issues and results were announced at the final plenary. 47% of people at the conference believe the most important issue to focus on is prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the courts. 28% of people felt re-entry and restoration of rights for people with criminal records is the most crucial. Unfortunately, the movement to end mass incarceration is going to require conquering much more than just one aspect of the system. As Daryl Atkinson explained, conquering mass incarceration is like eating a giant hamburger: “How are we going to eat this giant burger called mass incarceration?” Daryl asked the audience. “One bite at a time...There’s not one thing we need to do,” he continued. “We need to change policies, organize, vote people in...keep biting until the giant burger is gone.”
“How are we going to eat this giant burger called mass incarceration?...One bite at a time...There’s not one thing we need to do, we need to change policies, organize, vote people in...keep biting until the giant burger is gone.”
After the final plenary, we loaded buses and went to the local community center for a community call to love and action. From there, groups of canvassers went into Orlando to knock on doors, and others stayed at the community center to phone and text bank. The goal of the call to action was to urge people to vote yes in November and help Florida restore voting rights to 1.4 million people. During this time, we touched over 83,000 people in three hours.
Our weekend in Orlando was a huge success and an incredible experience. We furthered our education on a range of topics surrounding criminal justice reform and we connected with formerly incarcerated communities from various parts of the country.
During our bus ride back to New Orleans, Checo Yancy, the Director of Voters Organized to Educate (VOTE’s sister organization), asked VOTE members a series of questions about what they learned, what they saw, what they thought went well, and what needs improvement. Checo began by encouraging people to “think about the nightmare we were living in prison when we started this,” and then urged them to realize “the dream we’re now living.” Checo was incarcerated when the Angola Special Civics Project (now VOTE) first began and was a founding member.
Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston, a co-founder of the Special Civics Project, touched on the progress VOTE has made: “From the beginning [of the Angola civic project in 1986], this is where we ended up,” he explained. “At the time we put this together, I didn’t have any out date, but I knew one thing. Biggy with the 'Y' was not gonna die in the penitentiary.”
“At the time we put this together, I didn’t have any out date, but I knew one thing. Biggy with the 'Y' was not gonna die in the penitentiary.”
VOTE member Veralynn Kohlman continued along this transformational path. She expressed that looking around the room this weekend, “I saw the souls of my ancestors...who were brought here through the Atlantic slave ships...with no human rights and no dignity…when they brought them here, they intended for us to stay in chains, but [this weekend] I saw the souls of our ancestors being proud…We’re going to vote, and everybody’s going to vote. It is our human right!”
Our Statewide Organizer, Dolfinette Martin reflected upon the outreach we did over the weekend and the importance of bringing that energy home. “If we want people to help us fight, we have to be willing to go out there with them...when we go back, we have some fighting to do of our own,” said Dolfinette. “We have a lot of people on this bus who had life sentences...and they’re on this bus. They got those life sentences by non-unanimous juries! So we’re gonna go back and we’re gonna change the way things are going!”
Now that we’re back in New Orleans, it’s time to prepare for our upcoming ballot initiative. Amendment 2 would change our state’s constitution and require unanimous jury decisions for all felony convictions. It’s time to spread the word and vote yes on Amendment 2 in November. Anyone who would like to join VOTE for this next step can sign up to volunteer here.